EDMONTON — The United States has stopped canola meal shipments from five Canadian plants at the border over concerns about potentially dangerous salmonella bacteria.
And prairie farmers are calling on the federal government to help sort out the situation before the backlog affects production and the price of the lucrative crop, which is used in animal feed.
“We are concerned that we are going to lose the ability to export our meal to the states,” said Humphrey Banack, a canola grower from Round Hill, who is also president of the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers.
“We end up with a burgeoning supply that is going to drive down canola prices.”
Canola is a key cash crop on the Prairies,and is used primarily to make cooking oil. Canola meal is a lucrative byproduct. Last year’s canola crop in Saskatchewan was worth $2 billion, while Alberta’s crop was worth roughly half that.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has slapped import alerts on canola meal plants operated by Bunge Canada (NYSE:BG) in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, on Cargill Limited in Saskatchewan and on Viterra (TSX:VT) in Manitoba.
The alerts put the plants on the USFDA Red List, which allows inspectors to detain shipments because they appear to contain salmonella, “a poisonous or deleterious substance” that could be harmful to health.
Banack said producers are wondering if the salmonella being found by the USDA in animal feed really poses a health risk and, if it dos, why the Canadian government isn’t doing more to deal with it.
“It is something that producers have a hard time understanding — why all of a sudden this came out of the blue?” he said.
“We need to see some federal intervention to see why these are being turned back and where do we have to move forward to eliminate this hazard. Let’s find out a way to settle this issue so we can continue even and consistent trade.”
Linda Morrison of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it is up to individual companies to satisfy U.S. import rules.
The CFIA has its own inspection program that requires facilities that sell feed in Canada to come up with a corrective action plan when salmonella is found, she said. But the agency won’t say if that is happening at the plants identified by the USFDA.
“Obviously we are not going to make public any information about a specific facility,” Morrison said from Ottawa.
“When we find salmonella we deal with everybody equitably. And we are expecting the companies with the problems to be taking in hand the problem, developing corrective actions and putting them in place.”
Officials with Bunge and Cargill declined to comment on the USFDA import alerts and blocked shipments. They referred comment to the Canadian Oilseed Processors Association, which did not return phone calls Wednesday.
An industry insider who declined to be identified said the blocked shipments came as a big surprise and the salmonella issue could have a “huge impact” on Canada’s canola sector, adding that canola crushing plants are operating well below capacity.
He said the industry does not know the levels of salmonella that were found in the shipments, but it appears the USDA has zero tolerance for the bacteria which can cause food poisoning.
Earlier this year, U.S. health officials reported that as many as seven people may have died from a salmonella outbreak linked to contaminated peanut butter. Another 700 got sick. In previous years there have been outbreaks linked to some brands of spinach.
Ward Toma, general manager of the Alberta Canola Commission, said it could take a while for the industry to come up with ways to meet the U.S. standards. He said Washington increased checks for salmonella after the recent outbreaks.
“To be able to get into that market we have to address the U.S. protocols,” Toma said.
“It is not tainted human food, it is tainted animal feed. And right now the regulations in the United States don’t distinguish between the two,” he said.
“We are hoping they will resolve this issue sooner than later.”